As part of Nick Hern Books’ 25th anniversary celebrations, on Thursday, 4 June four NHB playwrights – Alecky Blythe, Lucy Kirkwood, Conor McPherson and Nicholas Wright – gathered at the Almeida Theatre, Islington for a free panel event on playwriting, hosted by Michael Attenborough, former Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre. Here are some of the highlights of the discussion.
Q. Has the subject matter of plays, and the route for those plays to reach the stage, changed at all in the last 25 years?
Nick Wright (NW): It’s my impression that over the last 25 years, British theatre has become much more middle-class. Just the other night I was sitting in a theatre, and I realised that this was the second play in a row I’d seen that was about house prices! There’s no longer an assumption, which perhaps there was in the 1980s, that the writer should be an opposition voice.
Lucy Kirkwood (LK): I think the amount of money theatres have at their disposal has had an impact. There are more new writing theatres than there were 25 years ago, all doing amazing work, but none of them have much money. As a young writer just starting out there’s an awareness of the scale you’re writing for, and writing for a particular scale can affect the thematic and imaginative scale of the play. It’s rare nowadays that writers get the opportunity to paint with large brushes.
Alecky Blythe (AB): Picking up on what Nick said, the idea of verbatim theatre – which is the area I work in – and of a piece like London Road is to take those unheard voices and try and put them onstage, to give them exposure. In terms of how plays reach the stage, I think the importance of time and space to develop work is really importance, through things such as scratch nights and so on. The recent arts cuts really pose a threat to theatres being able to take risks.
Conor McPherson (CM): In the ’90s in Ireland we witnessed the rise of the monologue play, which was weird when you consider the economic context of the country at the time – maybe it was a reaction against it? An interesting difference I think between British writers and Irish writers is that Irish writers don’t really feel they have the licence to write about society; our work is much more about individuals. I don’t know if the subject matter’s really changed, but the mystery of playwriting has stayed the same – all you can do is try to write a good play and be prepared to go down in flames. In terms of the route to the stage, you just have to believe that good plays will find their way.
Mike Attenborough (MA): On the content of plays, the subject matter has probably changed with the make-up of the writers whose work now most often gets staged. Give people the opportunity to write for the stage and the camera will pan their way, as plays focus on the issues that matter to them. On the question of how plays reach the stage, Alecky’s points on the arts cuts are important. The cuts aren’t necessarily impacting on production of new work, but they harm everything else: commissions, research and development. With David Eldridge’s play The Knot of the Heart, which we did here at the Almeida in 2011, after we’d commissioned the play David asked for a week-long workshop with actors, a director and an expert on drugs, to help him develop the script. Now that cost a bit of money, but the result was a wonderful play.
Q. [directed primarily towards Alecky and Lucy] Do female writers feel they have an obligation, or perhaps a pressure, to write for women?
AB: When I’m starting on a new work, I always feel the pressure is to find a good story, and good characters. Limiting yourself at that point just makes what was already hard, even harder.
LK: I don’t feel pressure, but perhaps a sense of responsibility. Clean Break [the acclaimed theatre company, of which Lucy is a Board member] only commissions female writers writing for female performers. There just need to be more female parts, particularly for great older actresses, and more positive representation of older female characters.
NW:‘Of course, in France, older actresses commission plays for themselves to star in – Juliette Binoche is a good present-day example. Camus and Sartre, among others, wrote huge parts for women, on commission.
AB: Part of it does come down to the power of the pen. Why not write for yourself? That’s how I started, I was an actor before I became a playwright.
Q. How much does a play change from when you first submit it to when it arrives onstage, and have you ever had to fight to keep something in?
CM: I’m usually pushing to cut stuff out! It’s always the actors who want to keep it in. It’s not until you actually start rehearsing, and hear the script out loud, you realise all the stuff in it you don’t need.
NW: But then, of course, sometimes an actor will say, ‘No, you can’t cut that speech, that’s the reason I’m doing this production!’ They’re often much more protective than I am.
AB: The struggles can be good, though. It’s good to be challenged.
MA: Whenever I do Shakespeare, I edit the text to fit the production, and I always deliberately cut too much. Then, when we get into rehearsal, the actors have the Folio edition open next to their copy of our script, and they can go through it, and argue for stuff to come back in. I always think that’s a better way to do it – to go the other way round, and cut as we go, would be chaos.
Q. Is your ‘holy grail’ to put a new spin on an old idea, or to actively break new ground?
CM: Can you ever know you’ve broken new ground? Imagine how that would feel – it’d be like, “whoa!” I suppose it goes back to how you actually settle on a play: do you choose what to write about, or does it just come to you?
NW: I agree, the idea shapes everything else.
LK: I never consciously sit down and think ‘This play I’m writing will have four acts and it will be experimental.’ You have to let the idea you’re working on express itself – that’s the most important thing.
CM: In a way, every play that works is ground-breaking, because it creates a new emotion in the audience. If you really bring yourself to it, no-one else could have written it.
Q. Do you ever have to stop yourself from directing the play as you write it?
CM: No, I never stop myself. When you write a good line, a really good line, in your head you’ve actually heard that character say it. So it’s hard when you get to rehearsal and an actor just says it completely wrong! It’s not usually a problem though, because I always direct the first production of my plays [most recently The Night Alive at the Donmar Warehouse]. I want that control.
AB: Coming at it from a verbatim theatre perspective, I sort of cheat because my actors are working from a recorded tape. In rehearsal I’ll have headphones in listening to the original recording, and if the actor goes too fast, or cuts out a hesitation or an ‘um’, I’ll stop and tell them. The idea is to faithfully reproduce not just what the original subject said, but also the way they said it.
MA: Offering a director’s perspective, it can be difficult when you’re directing the first production of a new play. Too many stage directions can be particularly unhelpful; you have to trust the process of the rehearsal room, and it can be limiting to always be thinking of the absent presence of the writer, who you sometimes won’t see until a run-through in a few weeks. I feel it’s better to have just a few select, key stage directions in the text. Also, I’d offer a piece of advice to any writers in the audience: fight the urge to rewrite in rehearsal. It’ll be rewriting by committee; everyone has an opinion. And to any actors in the audience: I always find it odd when an actor says, “my character wouldn’t say that.” Well, first of all, they do – it’s on the page! But secondly, why would you want to limit yourself, instead of trying to expand into the character?
Q. Do you workshop your plays during their development? And does that help the process?
NW: I’ve done it twice, and I certainly haven’t regretted it. It allows you to make decisions early on, before you actually get into the rehearsal room.
MA: Also, just hearing it out loud can be enormously helpful. We’re in the middle of the run of Lucy’s new play Chimerica here at the Almeida at the moment, and when we did some early readings, as soon as Lucy heard it being spoken she knew some of what needed to be done to the script –
LK: – partly because we’d sat through a four-and-a-half hour version of it!
NW: Personally I don’t like being at the early, ‘swampy’ bit of rehearsals because whenever an actor has a problem on a line they turn to me for the answer. But if I do give them my thoughts, I feel like I’m robbing them of the opportunity to work it through themselves.
CM: I always think the actors are far more interesting than my characters. I just bring a mask, whereas they bring a whole living person. There’s a lot of the actors in my scripts; I rewrite as rehearsals go on, and I’m adjusting the dialogue, trying to write for their voice and bring that out. If an actor makes a mistake on a word, we’ll keep that in.
Q. How do you keep going, retaining the belief that becoming a playwright will eventually happen for you?
MA: Just put it on. Anywhere. You and the blank sheet of paper is terribly lonely.
CM: The great thing about a play is that you can do that. Just put it on in the room above a pub for three nights – you can find actors that’ll do that for free, even if they’re not perhaps the ones you ideally wanted.
NW: You just have to believe that you have a little bit of talent, somewhere inside you.
After the event, we handed out free copies of our 25th anniversary publication My First Play to all the attendees. Judging by the response on Twitter, this was a popular move!
A huge thanks to all who came to our Having a Play event, and to our panellists for their humour and insight. Meanwhile, Nick Hern Books’ 25th anniversary celebrations continue. My First Play: An Anthology of Theatrical Beginnings, a unique collection of pieces from over sixty playwrights, actors and directors (including some of our Having a Play panel), is now on sale – it, like all NHB books on our website, is currently available at our special 25% anniversary discount.